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Musical Instrument Lending Libraries Make Playing Music More Accessible

November 21, 2019
Written by
Liz Pelly
Photos Courtesy of
Brooklyn Public Library and Free Library of Philadelphia

Looking to learn a new instrument? The gear at musical instrument lending libraries is free and accessible for anyone with a local library card.

On the third floor of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch, Harold Stern is sitting behind a desk, sorting through a pile of assorted guitars and keyboards packed in their soft black gig bags. This afternoon, library card holders will arrive to check them out for four weeks each. “This one was a donation,” he says, pointing to a 61-key Yamaha keyboard. He checks a bass case to make sure all the accessories are there: tuner, strap, instruction book, power adapter, cable. 

This is BPL’s Musical Instrument Lending Library, where patrons can take out acoustic and electric guitars; basses, banjos and bongos; ukuleles, violins, electronic keyboards, drum pads, steel drum kits, güiros, maracas, tambourines, triangles, claves, cymbals, cowbells, charangos, and music stands. It was launched in May of 2018, and has quickly become a popular program among Brooklyn library patrons. 

Brooklyn Public Libraries’s Central Branch’s collection of sheet music.

The concept of musical instrument lending libraries has been popular across Canada for years, and in the United States, the idea has started catching on more recently. When beginning to conceive of this project, the librarians of BPL looked to the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Musical Instrument Collection, which launched in 2016, for research and inspiration on details like sourcing, check-out processes, budgeting, and how to store and maintain instruments in a climate controlled way. 

In the three years since the Philadelphia collection began, it has expanded to include over 100 instruments, library cards from re-purposed guitar picks, and a soundproof practice room where patrons can play the instruments in-house. 

“Studies show playing a musical instrument can improve mood, school performance, and quality of life,” wrote FLP music librarian Perry Genovesi in a blog post introducing the MIC. “Having to buy an instrument is just one hurdle toward learning to play, joining the city’s music ranks, and engaging with our booming cultural community. This is where libraries—institutions boasting equal access to all, regardless of whether one can pay money—come in.”

The Brooklyn program was initially pitched by Stern, who has been a librarian in BPL’s music department for over 20 years, through the library’s BKLYN Incubator program, a process where a panel of judges vote to fund projects dreamt up by librarians to meet the needs of patrons. The Musical Instrument Lending Library initially received $9,800 to purchase the library’s first 21 instruments at a Guitar Center in Brooklyn. Many have also been donated.

According to Stern, the work of running the program also involves maintaining the instruments and making sure parts don’t go missing. Depending on the instrument, it may come with an assortment of accessories like a strap, tuner, or sticks. Or in the case of the electric guitars, a mini Honeytone amp. Sometimes the instruments are brought to a repair shop, or for more minor things, like broken strings, the librarians will do fix-ups themselves.

To borrow an instrument from the BPL, patrons email the music librarians to check on an instrument’s availability. Then they either are placed on a waiting list or asked to make an appointment to come by, sign a loan agreement form, and check out the instrument. “You need to make an appointment because we don’t keep the instruments right up here,” Stern explains. “We keep them in storage way down below.” Anyone with a current BPL library card account and less than $15 in fines can check out an instrument.

Free Library of Philadelphia’s Music Department

Stern is a musician himself, a trombone player who performs with Lost in the Stacks, a band comprised largely of BPL librarians, and with a marching band. Per the requests of patrons, and his own interests as a horn player, Stern hopes that eventually the library will include brass and woodwind instruments, though they have not yet figured out a way to solve hygiene issues with mouthpieces and reeds. “Since I’m a wind player myself, I wish we could, but we have to work out those issues first,” he says, adding that he’s been meaning to get in touch with the Library of the Chathams in Chatham, NJ, that lends woodwind instruments.

“Usually for most people who rent instruments, they have to pay a certain fee, and they get it for a limited amount of time,” Stern says. “Here we let people test out the instruments before they buy instruments. We started out doing it for two months. And then after a while we got so many requests, we had all these waiting lists and people were not getting instruments for at least two months. So then we reduced it to one month.”

The Musical Instrument Lending Library is just one of several ongoing music-related efforts at the BPL, including an ongoing classical series on Sundays and swing music and dancing in the summer on the plaza. The library also houses upwards of 17,000 pieces of sheet music for patrons to borrow, including guitar and piano books.

Free Library of Philadelphia’s Music Department

“One of the most popular things about the library is that we have a professional style recording studio on the first floor,” explains Fritzi Bodenheimer, BPL’s press officer. “I can hardly get in there because everyone has it booked every day.” The recording studio is used for all different purposes, including recording music and the BPL’s podcast, Borrowed: Stories That Start at the Library.

“We had a band come in, and they recorded their whole album in the studio,” Bodenheimer says. “It’s really nice, having the instruments, plus the sheet music, plus the books, plus the recording studio. It makes a nice suite of things.”

Stern adds: “Sometimes people will try the instruments out and then decide they want to record. Some of the patrons who have borrowed the instruments, they’re not all beginners, some of them are advanced musicians who are actually looking to just start another instrument, or just want to try it. Or they’re having a gig and their instrument is in the shop or something, and they need an instrument on the spot.”

Free Library of Philadelphia’s Music Department

It all fits into the greater mission of the library. “The library is all about literacy in the traditional way, but now we’ve expanded,” says Bodenheimer. “We want people to be technologically literate, we want them to be culturally literate, and that includes art and music.”

The Brooklyn Public Library’s Musical Instrument Lending Library is currently at capacity and cannot accept donations, but many of the lending libraries listed below (which includes both public and privately-run efforts) accept donations.

Instrument Lending Libraries in North America

Ann Arbor District Library – Ann Arbor, MI

Barrie Public Library – Barrie, ON, Canada

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh -Pittsburgh, PA

Enfield Public Library – Enfield, CT

Forbes Library – Northampton, MA

Free Library of Philadelphia – Philadelphia, PA

The Joe Chithalen M.I.L.L. – Kingston, ON, Canada

Library of the Chathams – Chatham, NJ

Lopez Island Library – Lopez Island, WA

Murrieta Public Library – Murrieta, CA

MusicLandria: Sacremento’s Musical Instrument Library – Sacramento, CA

Ottawa Public Library – Ottawa, ON, Canada

Tarpon Springs Public Library – Tarpon Spring, FL 

Toronto Public Library – Toronto, ON, Canada

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